By Bill McKenzie
“Governing with great administration
handling with great capability
moving with great timing
Because it does not contend
it is therefore beyond reproach”
From the great Tao flows everything, but everything also has its own Tao, its own way. The Tao of the human body, and its possibility of extraordinary discipline, is wonderfully evident in the martial arts and Tai Chi, both inspired by Taoist ideology and practice. But the same principles are equally demonstrated in team sports, and perhaps the most interesting part of observing team sports is that Taoist practices are evident for the most part without the team participants knowing that that’s what they’re doing.
In his book The “Tao of Sports”, Bob Mitchell wrote this: “For each winner, there’s a loser; for each loser, a winner. The true athlete accepts the fundamental paradoxes of sport. He knows that from contradiction comes
growth, from conflict comes understanding. Thus, he is able to act by not acting, to move by standing still, to make noise by being silent, and to accept defeat by being content”.
Baseball is a wonderful example of a perfect combination between the Tao of the body and the Tao of the team, and of course, “the bounce of the ball”, the unpredictable and uncertain. There are two key divisions in baseball, as in most sports, offense and defense. However, offense in baseball is largely an individual effort; it is a matter of controlling your body, and your mind, in a very meticulous, but largely subliminal fashion (in particular hand – eye coordination), i.e. as is done in Tai Chi or martial arts; whereas defense is that, plus an equally important interplay and collaboration between other members of the team. Without this, if members perform individual efforts with skill, they will not be successful without an almost seamless and subconscious effort on the part of the team defense.
Regarding the individual effort, you see it most the pitcher and batter. With the pitcher, there’s a variety of pitches, ways and velocities that will move the ball. Your entire body goes into generating what’s going to happen the moment the ball is released – it can rotate, curve, sink, flatten, or travel at a speed as slow as
55mph all the way up to 101mph. There’s also an interesting pitch called a knuckle ball, thrown slowly with the two middle knuckles of the finger folded against the ball so that it moves with a kind of “flutter” appearance. The Tao of the pitchers body can bring into balance everything the legs and lower body must do, everything the arm and shoulder must do (all called a “wind up” and “stretch”) to generate great power to release the ball on a line, or a curve to an area 17 inches wide and from the batter’s knees to the number on his chest. All of this must be done with an eye to not overdoing it, or pitching more than twice, occasionally three times a week. It’s not uncommon for a pitcher to throw 120 pitches during a game, plus warm up pitches. Shoulder and elbow injuries are understandably a big risk.
The hitter goes through a similar process. He must move his body, using the coordination between his hands and eyes to either make contact with a fast moving ball, or to allow it to go by out of the strike zone. Reaction time to make that decision is about one second. This act is done using a bat 2.75 inches in diameter, making solid contact with a ball 3 inches in diameter, and guiding where it might go on the field – ideally to a place where no one can catch it. In this way, baseball hitting is very much like golf, except that the golf ball doesn’t initially move toward you.
“The great Tao is like a flood
It can flow to the left or to the right”
On defense, all of the principles of using the Tao to function as a team come into play. The principles of group coordination and united effort are as important as individual balance and control. Now the team is not just dependent upon valiant individual effort, it’s looking for a seamless, athletic relationship between 2 or more people, sometimes 3 or 4. The defensive unit cannot function rigidly, as is said in so many disciplines, practice the fundamentals over and over and over again, then forget them. This allows for real innovation between team members and without spontaneous innovation, you won’t excel as a team – as TTJ 76 says:
“Thus that which is hard and stiff, is the follower of death
That which is soft and yielding, is the follower of life
Therefore, an inflexible army will not win”.
On routine plays, the infielders must catch the ball, cock their arm and throw it to first base, ahead of the runner. The first baseman must stretch out his entire body in order to facilitate an “earlier arrival” of the ball thrown from the fielder. Or, the outfielder must perfectly estimate a pop fly and adjust his body and glove accordingly – does he move in, move back, go left, go right? Does he run or does he have plenty of time? Watching a ball hit up and estimating where you need to be when it starts it trajectory down is not as easy as Major League players make it look.
Nowhere is the team Tao more evident than on a double play. To be successful, one of the infielders must scoop up a ground ball, sometimes running at full speed left or right, occasionally leaving his feet, reading short hops right in front of him, and toss it, or throw hard to another infielder covering second base, who in turn throws it to first. The ball has to reach both bases before the respective runners do. How and when the players are going to release the ball, with what speed, toward what part of the base, high or low, right side of left side, are decisions made in nanoseconds. The other player must adjust to anywhere the ball is thrown, then pivot, sometimes jump to get out of the way of a sliding player’s spikes and plant and throw to first to complete the double play. When done well, it’s a thing of beauty. When somebody throws wide, yet another team mate has to be behind the infielder to cover such off-target attempts. The act is done by the team nearly subliminally. It’s a case of the muscles having “minds of their own” from thousands of hours of practice – looking for “that particular short hop of the ball”, or throwing a man out from your knees. The body is running the athlete, and the Tao is running the team.
Speaking of running the team, the manager also must align himself to a series of delicate principles involving strategies that guide the team. But the manager must be a student of human nature and while encouraging precise team behavior, also honoring individual differences, making himself a peer, not a tyrant. From TTJ 68:
“Those who are good at managing people lower themselves
It is called the virtue of non-contention
It is called the power of managing people”
The manager starts the game by turning in a line-up card, and that can vary every game. The batting order (line-up) is usually guided by the question “are you facing a right handed or left handed pitcher”? As much as possible, you want to put left handed batters against right handed pitchers, and vice-versa. A breaking ball will break down and away from a right handed batter when a right handed pitcher throws it, thus the advantage goes to the pitcher on “righty vs. “righty”. The need for the strategies increases as the game wears on. Many managers are very crafty with rotating in relief pitchers or hitters as the game moves on, according to what might be needed. In baseball though, once a man comes out of the game for a substitution, he’s out for the duration. But the clever managers occasionally slip in a surprise – a bunted ball (a ball hit softly in the area of the infield no farther than the pitcher’s mound), or a “hit and run” (sending the runners on base for a kind of head start before the pitcher has thrown the ball to home plate, expecting the batter to then make contact). A good “hit and run” is disruptive and gets the defense out of position. Good managers are masters at the element of surprise. As is says in “The Art of War”: “The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim”.
The game of baseball today has been sullied by greed, strikes and trash talking, and spoiled, wealthy superstars. But nevertheless, like most team sports, everybody who has achieved any mastery at all has come by it the same way – falling in love with the idea of competing at something you love and something your body likes to do; then, falling in with like minded characters who love the same thing. Like all things in life, if we feel a certain inclination, or if we feel we are being drawn toward something, often that is the natural flow of the Tao pulling us in. The “way of baseball” intersects with our physical and mental development just at the time our interest in learning about the notions of physical mastery and team play is aroused. This is the action of the Tao; this is both the humility and glory of baseball. Terrance Mann put it so well to Ray Kinsella in “Field of Dreams”: “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once
was good and it could be again”.
Baseball is a powerful example of how to demonstrate the most intricate principles of Taoism, while having no idea whatsoever what you’re doing. The same may be true of the audience.
Bill McKenzie is a Training Manager for a non-profit agency serving at-risk young families with children from birth to five throughout the state of Illinois. He’s also an active musician; bass and acoustic guitarist, performing in a Celtic fusion band and a classic rock band on weekends. Bill’s has a Master’s Degree in Human Development Counseling and 25 years experience in ministry and social service. He’s also a student of Taoism and of the writings and lectures of Joseph Campbell. He lives in Springfield, Illinois with his wife Lori and their 2 daughters.